Tech leaders have long predicted a ‘splinternet’ future where the web is divided between the US and China. Trump might make it a reality.

President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping during the G20

President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.
President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

  • The Trump administration announced a broad plan on Wednesday to block Chinese software from being used on US devices and keep US data off Chinese cloud services.

  • The plan mirrors China’s “great firewall” that prevents people in China from accessing most US websites and apps.

  • While the Trump administration’s announcement rocked the world of tech, Silicon Valley leaders have long braced for a “splinternet” that could replace the world wide web with locally contained networks.

  • Others, like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have previously predicted a bifurcated internet, split between China’s internet and the rest of the world.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

We’re closer to a “splinternet” than ever before.

Tech leaders have long warned that the world wide web could come to an end if nation-states across the globe wall off other countries’ websites and products — and a new plan proposed by the Trump administration on Wednesday takes the US one more step in that direction.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Wednesday that the US is planning a “Clean Network” program that would ban Chinese apps from US app stores and block US tech companies from storing data on China-owned cloud services. It’s the latest escalation in an ongoing dispute between the US and China and follows President Donald Trump’s threat to ban TikTok if it isn’t sold to a US company by its Beijing-based owner.

Pompeo’s plan mirrors China’s “great firewall,” which blocks people in China from accessing most US websites and grants the Chinese government broad powers to regulate and censor online content within its borders.

Russia has similarly experimented with building an internet that can be shut off from the rest of the world, and countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea already censor online content from other countries.

The splinternet isn’t a new idea — but it’s becoming more of a reality

While the Trump administration’s plan would mark an unprecedented step away from a free and open global internet, Silicon Valley has anticipated a Balkanized splinternet for years.

Early tech bloggers like Doc Searls and Stephen Lewis began theorizing about a splinternet as early as 2008, noting that the free and open ideals that built the world wide web are increasingly at odds with the political agendas of governments across the globe.

Lewis noted at the time that companies like Apple and Google seemed perfectly willing to modify their products to fit various governments’ regulations rather than advocate for a neutral, global internet. He noted that Apple willingly removed NPR shows from its iTunes podcast library in countries that banned the station.

“[Governments] still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of ‘appliancing’ country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions,” Lewis wrote.

A splinternet or a bifurcated internet?

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has predicted that the internet as we know it will split in the future — but Schmidt says it’s less useful to imagine a “splintered” internet than a separation between China and the rest of the world.

“I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America,” Schmidt said in 2018. Schmidt himself now advises the Pentagon and serves as a liaison between many Silicon Valley companies and the US military.

“If you look at China … the scale of the companies that are being built, the services being built, the wealth that is being created is phenomenal. Chinese Internet is a greater percentage of the GDP of China, which is a big number, than the same percentage of the US, which is also a big number,” he added.

Schmidt predicts that, while America’s allies could keep using the same internet as the US, other countries are likely to adopt China’s infrastructure — especially the roughly 70 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe that have preexisting infrastructure deals with China. 

Pompeo’s announcement included calls to shore up a similar partnership between US allies, urging them “to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state and other malign entities.” The State Department said in a statement that more than 30 countries have already been designated by Washington as “Clean Countries.”

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